A few years ago, we wrote about a horrifying ruling in which a blogger who was sued for libel was told he had to pay $60,000, even though it was shown that what he had said was entirely truthful. It’s an oft-repeated statement that truth is an absolute defense against defamation claims, but in this case, things got weird (and troubling). The ruling found that even though the statements were truthful, they represented “tortious interference” with employment. The case involved a blogger named John Hoff who blogged, truthfully, about Jerry Moore’s involvement in a high-profile mortgage fraud situation. Moore had been hired by the University of Minnesota, but was apparently let go soon after Hoff’s post. It seemed absolutely ridiculous that providing truthful information about someone should ever be seen as illegal, but that seemed to be the case here. The original ruling was a jury verdict and we had hoped that the court would set aside that verdict, but it chose not to, going against a rather large collection of case law (and common sense).
Thankfully, Hoff appealed, and the appeals court has now reversed the original ruling. The appeals court made the point clearly and concisely:
Because truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation, truth should also be a defense to a claim for tortious interference with a contract arising out of an allegedly defamatory statement.
The court goes into much more detail over its decision to reverse and send it back to the lower court, but it all comes back to the basics. If the content is truthful, then there’s no issue:
Moore argues that Hoff is not shielded from tort liability simply because Moore could not prove the falsity of Hoff’s statement. Rather, Moore urges us to rely instead on Hoff’s motivation for making the allegedly defamatory statements. Moore asserts that because Hoff had an ulterior motive of getting Moore fired, he can be liable for the tortious-interference claims. We disagree.
When a person conveys unflattering and possibly damaging information to another person’s employer, it is unlikely that the motivation for conveying that information is borne out of affection. It is much more likely that the intent is for the employer to take responsive action — up to and including termination — based on the content of that information. Regardless of the motivation of the messenger, if the information conveyed is true, it is not appropriate for liability to attach.
It’s good that the courts seem to have fixed the earlier decision, but it’s still crazy that it even got this far.